With a brutal report into conditions published by the Chief Inspector of Prisons this week, the CEO of charity Spark Inside – which offers coaching in prisons – considers how Coronavirus restrictions in our jails can be navigated

The Chief Inspector of Prisons warned this week of “the risk of irreparable damage to the mental health of a lot of prisoners”. “There’s not much hope” for people locked in their cells for 23 hours a day for months on end,” he lamented

Why does a senior figure like Peter Clarke, who has spent much of the past five years of his working life shining a light in the dark corners of prisons, choose to focus on hope?

Anyone who knows someone in prison, has worked with someone who’s been to prison or lived or worked behind bars knows that hope for the future is the lifeblood of rehabilitation. In prison that means the hope of getting a place on an anger management or therapy course which is part of a person’s sentence plan. Or the hope to be gained from starting a vocational course. Or the hope of a Mum or Dad to rebuild a bond with their child through a visit. 

In short, hope is a crucial currency in prisons. It helps determine whether people are more likely to build a positive life for themselves on release, away from crime. 

Clarke, a former police officer, rarely gives media interviews but probably decided that the effects of COVID-19 – and the fact that he is soon due to leave his post – meant it was time to speak out. The virus has exacerbated the pre-existing problems of overcrowding, underfunding and violence faced by our prisons.  

In his last annual report of conditions in prisons in England and Wales in 2019-20, Clarke lays out in brutal terms the impact of the Coronavirus crisis: no face-to-face education in any establishment, almost all prisoners banged up for at least 23 hours a day in their cells, the loss of family visits and frustrating delays in introducing video-calls with relatives and friends. 

These facts may be well known to those living or working in prisons, but they have hardly featured in the Prime Minister’s press briefings to the nation. During the past seven months, the almost 80,000 people in prison have remained forgotten, ‘out of sight, out of mind’. 

Digital Disconnect

The former Prisons Minister Rory Stewart was equally excoriating about the state of our prisons at an event held this week by the charity Spark Inside, which provides coaching in prisons. He condemned the conditions as “shameful” and “probably the most shocking failure in British civilisation”. 

As the country readies itself for a rough winter ahead, it is worth remembering that prisons did not even have the brief respite much of the country had. There has been no recovery for prisons. Still now, for example, not one single London prison has reinstated educational courses. 

The ongoing state of a ‘double lockdown’ – with self-harm and violence ever-present spectres – continues to deprive the people living inside our prisons of the vital currency of hope. Like many other external organisations, Spark Inside’s work provides hope. Working with our trained life coaches, young people have a chance to reflect on their lives, challenge assumptions about themselves and others, and look ahead to a future of focused plans. It is little wonder that Clarke warned of a “irreparable damage” to prisoners’ mental health and wellbeing. We should take note. 

When Stewart joined us online from the US, where he now teaches at Yale University, he did so with the benefit of knowing the inner workings of the British prison system and government. He questioned why prisons had failed to reinstate a supportive regime sooner, a regime which would have enabled rehabilitation activities to take place at the same time as keeping people safe.

“With careful scanning and monitoring of staff it ought to be possible to do things in a prison that are more difficult to do in a school or restaurant,” he said. Yet, even as school children across the country are back in the classroom, the majority of children in young offenders institutions are being left behind. Significantly, this does not seem to be down to indifference from leaders in those establishments but rather – as the Chief Inspector of Prions spotted – through the blocking of certain face-to-face activities returning by the Government. 

At Spark Inside, we are now developing digital coaching for young people locked up, while we live with the Coronavirus. But it does beg the question: why are our prisons lagging behind, unable to provide secure IT services across the board for live learning?  

Stewart was baffled by the digital disconnect in prisons too, calling it “a total failure of successive British governments” and saying that “the fact that people are not able to go online is extraordinary”. The irony was not lost on Stewart. It is an open secret that smuggled phones are all too common in prisons and therefore even more remarkable that a legal means to keep people in contact with rehabilitation, mentoring, coaching, therapy services has not yet been found, he suggested.

Innovation and adaptation are a lifeline in this pandemic and they are especially vital to restore decency, rehabilitation and hope in our prisons. Call me an optimist, although I consider myself pragmatic too, but I will unashamedly continue to fly the flag for hope in our jails.  


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